I’ve been reading Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto by Vine Deloria, Jr. It’s pretty intense, and reviews by whites tend to reflect two concepts that I find disturbing: 1. Oh, now I “get” Indians and 2. This book is horrible and racist! I’m white and I’m not like that! I find the first sentiment disturbing because it shows how damn ignorant the country is on tribal law, broken treaties, and past assimilation programs. I find the second sentiment disturbing because it not only views Indians versus non-Indians as a racial vis-à-vis rather than sovereign nations with enormous cultural disparities (a central point being made by most of these texts), but it shows resentment before assent to past wrong-doings (which were clearly racially and religiously motivated). As a result, you get an audience that willing to be enlightened and which consequently becomes divided by those who resent the sovereign separation – but also those who pity.
And that brings me to today’s topic: Pity. White, Christian society has – as a generalization – repeatedly pitied minorities (once, of course, it got over taking advantage of them). For example, so many mission trips head off to Africa within 150 years of African slavery in this country and within 50 years of Civil Rights oppression. These societies didn’t care then, but suddenly they do? Is it the new, generational upbringings that have helped conquer past racism? No, I don’t think it is. I think it is continued egocentrism, a continued effort to inflict one society’s views on another. And just like people today will look at African countries and pity the poor, impoverished people without any hope, they will read about American Indians and just feel bad – but never do anything that could sacrifice any of their royalties.
Okay – now you’re probably saying, Well people do sacrifice for mission trips! You say this because they take time and money to go overseas to live in those icky conditions for just some time. But this is just my point. Poverty vs. simplicity. And while I don’t speak for every person in every community in every impoverished area of the world, I can speak from at least my observations in West and Central Africa, places where mission trips and Engineers Without Borders visit on an essentially permanent basis. I have, in French, conversed for several weeks among people in both rural and urban situations about the poverty. I’ve asked them what they think of America, of this lifestyle that these do-gooders wish to impose on the “impoverished”. They’ve told me that America sounds fascinating, but NO I would never leave here for that. Roukia, a cook in Ouidah, Benin who cleans in her spare time and recently opened her own restaurant – she told me the poverty is bad, people live badly in Africa. But she also told me that America is not the answer. People get by, but it’s confusing when the American lifestyle butts up against them. A man named Tomas and his friends, some committee people in the tiny rural Cameroonian village Batoula-Bafounda, sat around a table drinking palm wine with me, laughing because we Americans refused to stay in their village after the well implementation was complete. “Why go home?? We have EVERYTHING you need here! So many bananas, avocados, and palm wine! No, it’s not the American lifestyle, it’s the SIMPLE LIFE.” I can’t tell you how many times I heard people tell me this was the SIMPLE LIFE, the BETTER LIFE.
And so I ask, what are these trips accomplishing? What is this pity about? Why do people think this American, white, Christian lifestyle – this modernity – is the solution? When it’s the same answer to why the world is collapsing? Why are people convinced they have the solutions and that everyone else wants to live like them in this luxurious way? I think, to many “impoverished” people, this luxurious way is excessive, unnecessary, and severely lacking happiness. They see it as stress and competition, not family and laughter and tradition. These people who think otherwise come into villages (kind of like we did with EWB) and they implement systems that, quite frankly, fail immediately thereafter. (Google it if you don’t believe me; I’ve also written about this failure before.) Why do they fail? Because the people don’t care for them. Why? Because they fall back into routine, a routine that doesn’t have these luxuries at all. They choose tradition.
Thus back to this book, back to what I’ve written about so much lately. Tradition. This is the same problem we face in America with the failing efforts by the federal government to “fix” reservations. They’re imposing their beliefs, their ways of living, their solutions. What is the answer? Learn, ask, respect – but let be. Respect treaties and promises. Respect each other. Is that really so hard to do? Sometimes doing is like talking; if you really want to help, sometimes you’re better off not saying anything at all.